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Uh-Oh, Josh & Machinery, Not a Good Sign

Machines and I seldom get along together.

With great trepidation, I bought a new lawnmower last night, my third one since I’ve lived here.

I shouldn’t have had to buy it at all, but my next-door neighbor, who’d agreed to mow my lawn for $20 per, suddenly decided not to do it, and be passive-aggressive about not doing it.

Instead of picking up his 20 bucks each time he was done, he let things ride until one day his wife asked for 60 when I thought I owed him 40. I paid her the 60 but told her I thought he’d only mowed twice.

Didn’t hear a word back and my grass got long. So I bought a new mower, a better one than before, self-propelled and all, in case my problem with the previous mowers was that I wasn’t spending enough for a quality machine. This one promised to start “first time, every time.”

It came in a huge box. A young man at the store helped me load it into my back seat, but wasn’t around to help me unload it at home. Still, I got it out of the car and looked inside. It was all put together, so that was a relief.

I followed the directions. I can usually make something workable if I’ve got very specific directions; shelving, mini-blinds, anything that comes in pieces to assemble. But the directions had better assume I don’t know a thing.

I am no mechanic, and I’m retarded when it comes to building or fixing things. I’ve learned over the years not to even try unless I’ve got step by step instructions. Most of the time I don’t feel bad about this, unless I’m supposed to fix something. But I am programmed to believe that “men can do anything mechanical” (my next door neighbor can), so I really dread these kinds of tasks. I feel ashamed at my lack of ability and knowledge. My father didn’t teach us kids and I had a terrible time in 7th grade shop class. It took me all semester to make a ping-pong paddle while my male classmates were building room additions.

Fortunately I met the course requirement because we only had to build one thing. I think my paddle lasted about a week and a half before its rubber surface started peeling off, but by then I didn’t care. I passed.

These same classmates thought I was the smartest kid in the county until they saw me in shop class.

So: I got my lawnmower ready for the big test: Handle chest high. Oil in the reservoir, fuel in the tank, cord threaded through the slot; depress the bar next to the handle, push the “engine engage” lever till it clicks, then pull.

The bitch started right up! So I mowed my yard. And despite my panic over spending $260 on a lawnmower, it will only take 13 mows to pay for itself. Plus I’ve now got my neighbor out of my hair.

I’d forgotten how much better my yard looks when I mow it instead of paying someone else to do it. Or maybe my perception is altered because I did the work myself. I know this, it helps to have the mower push itself. I wasn’t nearly as tired afterward as I used to get with my cheap mowers.

I also have a better idea of what’s going on with my yard when I’m paying close attention to it. I need to trim more low-hanging branches off my trees; the cherry trees in front make life especially miserable when you’re mowing. Maybe that’s why Tony didn’t want the job, though I suspect he feels insulted that I questioned him. Still, he ought to have been a man about it and simply said, “No, it really was three times, Josh.” Okay.

He bult a privacy fence this year, and boy, am I glad about that; I don’t have to look at his ugly back yard anymore, or have any contact with him now.

But the biggest thing is, I solved my own problem. I got the job done. I am not a total wimp after all.

Meanwhile, my dillweed planted next to the house is looking gorgeous. Last year when I planted it I didn’t harvest any, and then it was gone; I didn’t realize it would come back again this year. So I think I’ll bake a couple of chicken breasts tomorrow so I can make chicken salad for sandwiches.

Josh’s Chicken Dill Salad

cubed cooked chicken or turkey
mayo
chopped sweet pickle
chopped onion
poultry seasoning
salt
*dillweed*

You can use it as a sandwich or a salad; spoon it into a custard cup and invert it on a lettuce leaf.

Will fresh dillweed make a taste difference? We shall see.

This year I will also try making a cold cherry soup.

James Beard’s Cherry Soup

2 pounds tart red cherries, pitted
2 C water
2-inch cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1/4 t salt
2 C red wine, port or sherry
sugar to taste
2 egg yolks, well beaten

Cook cherries in water with cinnamon, salt and cloves until cherries are very soft. Remove cinnamon and cloves; put cherries in a blender with some of the liquid and puree. Return to saucepan, add wine and sugar. Mix a little soup with the egg yolks, then stir back into the cherries. Reheat, stirring, until slightly thickened. Chill well in refrigerator. Serve cold with fresh cherry garnish.

(You could also add sour cream or whipped cream as garnish, dusted with a little ground cinnamon. If you like your soup sweet, add the sour, and vice versa.)

Serve on the veranda and pronounce yourself the master of all you survey.++

My cherries are ripening already.

Indianapolis Chip Dip

Oh. How zesty.

In honor of the New Orleans Saints’ spicy victoire over the bland and tasteless Colts in Super Bowl 44, I humbly offer this little recipe — and a story to go with it.

It is an established fact that my mother could not cook. She was terrible at it, and for two good reasons: when she was a child her father made her get up every morning to make cornbread in an old cast-iron skillet. He didn’t feed his daughter; she fed him because she was a female and he lost his wife in childbirth, when my mother was born. His little girl was apparently supposed to be his substitute wife, because God forbid he should make his own damn cornbread. My mother quickly came to resent this, and my brothers and I never blamed her for it.

The second reason: when I was six, she went away to The Best Pharmacy School in the World™, four long years of terribly demanding study. (Now it’s six.) In the meantime our all-male household learned to slap bologna between two slices of bread and call it supper. When she got back home to our grandparents’ drugstore, she worked 8, 10, 12 hours every day on her feet, and didn’t see why she ought to have to keep on working once she got home. My brothers and I never blamed her for that, either. Who could?

The Bro’s and I all became good cooks, as men ought to be, because there’s not always going to be a woman around to do your bidding. If you’re Gay, there’s never going to be a woman around, so you’d better know the difference between asparagus and an anchovy.

My mother was good with a few dishes; her onion dip, her potato salad—and I’m trying to think whether there was a third one; maybe her fruit salad with the cute little ’60s marshmallows. That was the level she was on foodwise. Couldn’t fry a chicken to save her life. Then there was a dish so notorious that the mere mention of it now provokes groans: hamburger gravy on boiled potatoes, the most ghastly stuff you ever saw. (And saw, and saw, and saw.)

Women have every right to resent cooking. But since they invariably like to eat, the rational ones ought to learn a few recipes, just in case.

NOW IT HAPPENED that while my mother was lousy in the kitchen, she took a bit of interest in cookbooks; in fact, all the ones she bought date back to the first years after her lastborn son went to college. She didn’t have males to press into service anymore. (Not that we ever resented that!) When she died, we found 50 or 60 cookbooks in her kitchen, all © 1970, the year I left home. My brother Steve, who accepted his one-third share of the cookbooks, examined them all to see whether the pages needed cutting. He was certain she’d never cracked them open. He’d turn a page and say, “No ketchup stains here.” He’d turn another one in the casseroles section and declare, “Not even Campbell’s mushroom soup.”

(We all cooked for her when we went back home, and in her later years we teased her without mercy.)

This is a long prologue for announcing that I seem to have made it my mission lately to actually make some of the things in Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook. Page 1, recipe 1, dips.

I have kept this cookbook because in some ways, it’s not bad. It’s terribly out of date, the food has no sophistication whatever, everything is geared to time-saving devices and the TV Dinner Generation; but still, it has some good features, including an herb-and-spice chart on the inside covers that I use today. (The competing Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks, which she also bought, dump MSG in everything.) Betty’s pictures of vegetables are useful and so are the basic preparation hints. Ol’ Betty apparently assumed that young brides didn’t know jack-shit in the kitchen, so she would teach them to be Happy Homemakers. In other words, perfect for my mother—and not bad for a Gay guy just starting out.

I have made four of the dips so far. This adventure did not start out well. Cape Cod Dip calls for an envelope of dry onion soup mix, 2 cups of sour cream and a 7-ounce can of minced clams, drained. The accompanying commentary suggests using thin strips of turnip or zucchini, which it calls “surprises.” Well, yes, it would still be a surprise today to see a turnip on the cocktail table.

Anyway I tried it. The canned minced clams were like eating bits of rubber. Maybe tuna would work but I don’t guarantee it.

Harlequin Dip uses sour cream, mayo, ripe olives, snipped chives, Worcestershire, mustard and a tiny bit of curry powder. Well, do you know how old my mother’s curry powder was? The internet hadn’t been invented; neither had the Zip Code. A&P was still a grocery chain. Streisand was an unknown Jewish girl from New Yawk who could Get It For You Wholesale. Yes, the dip was edible, but why would you bother?

Next came Artichokes with Onion Dip; this I had hopes for, because I’ve eaten real artichokes. This Betty Special called for frozen artichoke hearts, sour cream, mayo and… a tablespoon of dry onion mix. The artichokes were tasteless; the dip was not as bad as feared.

Finally there was Peppered Cheddar Dip: sour cream, a cup of shredded cheddar, 1/4 cup of chopped onion, 3 tablespoons of minced bell pepper, a little salt, some milk, a few drops of hot sauce; refrigerate at least one hour.

Honey, four days wouldn’t give this dip any flavor. The sour cream overwhelms everything and the cheddar is undetectable. I wasted a dollar’s worth of cheese on this thing. (I also didn’t add the milk; the sour cream is plenty runny as it is.)

On future Super Bowl Sundays, to honor Drew Brees and the Saints’ victoire, you might try this, though it will still be bland:

Indianapolis Colts Dip

1 1/2 C sour cream
1/2 C minced onion
1/2 C minced bell pepper
1/2 t. flavored salt (garlic, celery, onion, seasoned, anything with some flavor to it)
1 t hot sauce
and all the dead curry powder in your house

Mix, cover, refrigerate “at least one hour,” and for God’s sake don’t serve it with a freakin’ turnip.++

Oregano Harvest

Oregano, just picked and laid out. The youngest leaves often have a purple color. Oregano is high in antioxidants and is used for medicinal purposes in many cultures.

Oregano, just picked and laid out. The youngest leaves often have a purple color. Oregano is high in antioxidants and is used for medicinal purposes in many cultures.

It’s that time of year, fall in the Northern Hemisphere; the farmers around my house are out cutting their soybeans, while I’ve started to pick the last of my tarragon and oregano. My house smells lovely.

A month ago I brought in vast quantities of tarragon, mostly out of self-defense; the tarragon plant is huge this year, sprawling over everything else in the herb garden, and even though I have stepping stones out there I couldn’t make my way to the back, where a tomato plant had some ripe fruit I wanted. So I chopped tarragon, rinsed it off and piled it on my dining room table to dry. There’s still plenty more of it out in the garden, but I got four jars of the famous French herb packed up, the last of it cleared away just in time to have a friend over for dinner last week. Julia Child would say I’m rich in tarragon – too rich.

Yesterday I picked a smaller quantity of oregano, especially where it had started to go to flower. First I laid it out on my kitchen counter, but that’s working space, so I moved it onto a cookie sheet and then to the dining room.

If you look online about how to dry oregano you get advice that isn’t very practical; bunch it up, then hang it upside down, put it in paper bags with holes cut out, then hang the bags upside down, which would put the oregano back rightside up; huh? Then let it dry for a month, hanging somewhere. Or you can freeze it with a little olive oil; tastes good when you’re ready to use it, but doesn’t look appealing because the freezing wilts it. Obviously drying it is the most practical thing, which is how most cooks use it. Some people dry it in the oven or even the microwave, which saves time but halfway cooks the herb. So I asked my foodie friend Ed what to do, and I liked his answer: “Throw it on top of the refrigerator and forget about it for a couple of weeks.” Now that’s the Hoosier way!

I have two favorites among the herbs I grow, thyme and chives. Thyme is small and delicate, and last winter I actually ran out of dried thyme, so this year I bought two plants instead of one; thyme’s an annual so you have to replace it every year. I’m eager to get going on the thyme once this batch of oregano is done. Chives, meanwhile, fresh-snipped from the garden, are too fabulous, whether you put them on a baked potato with sour cream, in soups and salads or any other way you use them. They add that extra zing that makes herb gardening so worthwhile.

Last year I grew cilantro, which I really enjoyed; this year I switched to flat-leaf parsley, and it’s good too. I’ve used it fresh a bunch of times, whenever an extra taste of “green” seems to help. And of course when you’re decorating a plate, any bunch of leaves adds visual interest.

Here’s a simple recipe for a vinegrette that uses several of my ingredients. I just made a batch of this, and as I type I’m enjoying a salad. The recipe calls for tarragon vinegar, but the stuff you buy at the store ($3 for 12 oz.) is a waste of money, with almost no tarragon flavor. So make your own. I buy vinegar by the gallon ($2), and the dollar you’ll spend for one tarragon plant (which is perennial, year after year) means just a cup of homemade vinegrette has already paid for itself – no artificial flavors, no preservatives, no xanthan gum, no polysorbate 80.

Josh’s Tarragon Vinegrette

2/3 C olive oil*
1/3 C white vinegar
24 fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1 1/2 t fresh oregano, chopped (1/2 t dry)
1 1/2 t fresh parsley, chopped (1/2 t dry)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t salt
1 t dry mustard
1 t paprika
1/4 t fresh-ground pepper

Dump everything into a cruet or lidded glass jar, shake well and let it sit for an hour to blend flavors.

* Soybean oil (“vegetable oil”) is good too, but olive oil tastes better and is three times higher in monounsatured fat – the good kind.

If you’re making a green salad or some soup, whip up a batch of croutons while you’re at it. I guarantee you’ll never waste your cash on those store-bought things again.

Herb-Garlic Croutons

1 T margarine or butter
1 T olive oil
1 slice of bread
1 clove garlic, cut in half
pinch of basil, oregano, thyme or whatever

Heat a small, non-stick frypan on medium-low, melt butter and add olive oil. Sauté garlic for a couple of minutes to release flavor, then discard. (Or substitute a little garlic powder or garlic salt.) Cut up a slice of bread into inch or half-inch cubes. Toast 8-10 minutes, stirring once or twice, sprinkling herbs. Dry croutons on a paper towel. Leftovers will keep for a few days in a plastic bag.

* * *

I’m pleased to report that my composting experiment is turning out well. Both bins have gorgeous-looking black stuff on the bottom, which I occasionally turn with a half-size pitchfork. If everything looks dry I’ll add a cup or two of water. But the holes I drilled in the lids (large plastic bins, 5 bucks each at the discount store) let in the rainwater, so I’ve only watered once. Now that it’s autumn, I’ll fill the bins with fallen leaves and evergreen trimmings, then bring them into the garage for the winter, continuing to add vegetable scraps and coffee grounds from the kitchen. After the spring thaw, I’ll dump one bin into the other and start a fresh round of composting in the empty bin. The finished compost I’ll work into the soil in my back garden, reclaiming that former wasteland so it will grow tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and flowers next year.

Food cooked from scratch tastes better. Cooking with ingredients you grew yourself tastes best of all.++

Oregano&Flowers10.09

UPDATES: It seems the oregano doesn’t take long at all to dry; after just two days I’ve already stripped all but the youngest leaves and filled two jars. Plus I picked all of the thyme yesterday, filled a whole shopping bag and now have a gorgeous mound of this very versatile herb on my kitchen table. No running out of thyme this year.

Now I’m off to make some pumpkin raisin muffins, an ideal breakfast food when you’re on the run. Surely there’s a man out there somewhere who’d beat a path to my door if he knew about my muffins…

The Central Liturgy of Life

Blue Cheese.DavidFankhauserUCClermont

Dr. David Fankhauser, University of Cincinnati Clermont College.

The New York Times has a fantastic article today by Michael Pollan about the decline of cooking—fantastic in its wide range and the memories it conjures up. It’s called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” and discusses Julia Child, the current movie “Julia and Julie,” the rise of the Food Network and the decline of the American diet. I do a lot of scratch cooking, and the article makes me aware of the peculiarities of my personal history, current lifestyle (counter cultural)—and of something he doesn’t mention but all Episcopalians know, the rise in importance since 1979 of the Holy Eucharist, the shared Christian meal, as the central act of worship. Read the article here.

Pollan’s observations help me know what to do with my writing; namely to incorporate more recipes in my fiction and my blogs.

Some of you know that I have struggled for years to produce a sequel to “Murder at Willow Slough.” Novel-writing is usually hard work (though my “University” series came to me in a nine-month ecstasy). In “Slough” I created two men who groove on each other; it ends when they finally get together. But what next?

They fuck, they work, they eat and they sleep. Just like your life, though not necessarily in that order.

The point of the next book is to describe the making of a Gay Christian marriage. One character is secretly in love with God but seldom goes to church, while the other character goes every Sunday but doesn’t have a clue.

What they have in common is The Meal, at home and in the sanctuary.

Do The Meal often enough, and it comes to occupy a central place in your life. As Kent might say, “Ain’t nothin’ better than a good supper.”

Christianity astonishes me in its perfection. Jesus was the smartest guy ever.

“Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me.”

I miss having friends on my porch this summer as I grill out. For the past few years, two of them came every few days; we’d cook and eat and have a great time. But last winter they broke up and we’re all suffering as a result. They are such good guys, but they couldn’t get along, so the breakup was right, but I sure do miss them.

A year or so ago at their house—they’re also good cooks—Scott made a blue cheese spread for our steaks. It was delicious, and I wrote down his recipe. Three nights ago I made my own version of it for a ribeye I cooked all alone. It tasted great but I missed my guys.

In fiction, Jamie can make this for Kent:

Blue Cheese Spread

3 T cream cheese
1 scallion, minced
1 1/2 T blue cheese
1 t lemon juice
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1 garlic clove, minced

Mix all but the blue cheese in a small bowl with a fork. Then add the cheese and stir with a spoon, incorporating but not mashing the blue crumbles. Spread on a medium-rare steak and Enjoy!

In the fictional version Kent’s so sexy that Jamie lets him do whatever he wants. But Kent is smart enough to realize that outside the bedroom, Jamie’s the one who knows how to live. They come up with a very nice way to balance their power, so that no one is diminished and each of them serves the other. That’s how they make their marriage.

Or, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Jamie’s so good in the kitchen that Kent will follow him anywhere, do anything, for any reason.

A cop and a blondboy, a match made in heaven. But pray I can finally pull it off.++

Heartbeat

It’s Pansy Time!

pansies

Today was Pansy Day at my house. Make all the jokes you want.

Pansies are the first flower to arrive at my local garden supply shop (also known as the town grocery store). They like cool weather; it was a little over 50º here today. In Texas people plant pansies in October, but here in the Midwest they’re a spring thing.

I have two concrete planters on my front stoop, and even though it was windy and a bit cold (I’m not like those other pansies, I like it hot), I got them planted. Mine are purple and yellow, clear-faced (not monkey-faced like the ones above) and the blossoms are a good three inches wide, bigger than I’m used to, nice and showy.

The job didn’t take but a few minutes, including a strange little visit from a squirrel. I saw him a few feet away under my spruce tree; he startled me so I growled at him a second, then I laughed. He didn’t run away; in fact he came closer, within inches of my foot, like he was tame and we knew each other. So we talked a few minutes. Squirrels don’t eat pansies, so no problem. He’s probably eaten some of my tulip bulbs over the years, but I don’t have the evidence to accuse him.

Deer like pansies, but I’ve never seen one in town. They’re all over this area from the Iroquois River to Lake Michigan and I used to see a ton of them driving home from the north late at night, but they pretty much like woods and water in the country. I’ve grown pansies before on my back deck and nothing ever bothered them.

Best of all, for my 15 minutes of work, was the great sense of satisfaction and well-being I got from the planting. I can’t articulate quite why that always happens; when I plant herbs and foodstuffs, I can anticipate good eating in the future, but flowers just make me feel good on their own, without any ulterior motive. Of course I love the blooms, but it’s the sitting them out in the dirt, giving them a good start, that connects me with life. It’s fun to participate in the growth of another creature. Some people keep pets; I garden.

Last Sunday I got the rest of the pepper seeds potted; they have to germinate inside, it’s too cold for them yet. I potted the first batch a couple of weeks ago, so I’m trying to string out the maturity dates. Once peppers come they all seem to arrive at once; I’m doing the same thing with the radishes and scallions. The first radishes have sent shoots and leaves out, but the scallions are still lollygagging.

When it starts to warm up more consistently, I’ll have a lot of planting to do; I’ve got lily-of-the-valley bulbs which can go any day now, plus gladiolus for later on. I’ve got carrot seeds and sage waiting on me too, as well as lots of flower seeds Peter sent. If I were really dedicated I’d just bundle up and dig every day, but it doesn’t take much of a chill to drive me inside.

Once the pansies were in it was time to start cooking dinner; gardening and cooking just seem to go together. The plan was pot roast; it takes a long time, but man, was it worth it. It’s an old-fashioned dish but you can’t beat it. I figure I spent about $7 total and will get three meals out of it. Mmm, the gravy!

Pot Roast with Vegetables

2 lb. chuck roast
1/4 C flour
1 T salt + 1/2 t salt
1 t pepper
2 T soybean oil
[2-3 oz. horseradish]
1 C water
3-4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
3-4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, or 12 baby carrots
3-4 small onions
1/4 C water
1 T cornstarch

Trim most of the fat from the interior of the roast, separating along the muscles into 2-3 pieces of meat. In a small bowl stir together flour, salt and pepper; rub into meat. Heat oil in Dutch oven, brown meat on all sides; reduce heat to low. [Spread horseradish over half or all of meat, depending on your taste.] Add a cup of water and simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Add vegetables and 1/2 t salt, simmer another hour.

Remove meat and vegetables to a platter and keep warm. Turn up heat under broth and get out your glass gravy jar and lid. (You’ve got an old jelly jar, don’t you?) Shake together cornstarch and 1/4 C cold water till starch dissolves; stir into broth and heat to boiling, stirring often. Cook and stir for 1 minute. Enjoy!

Tonight I did something a little extra, given I’m just one guy by myself: I poured my gravy into a gravy boat, just for an added touch of special. I’m convinced gravy tastes better that way. Even on a work night, even single guys: use your gravy boat, it’s why God invented the dishwasher.

I don’t even like cooked carrots, but man, they all disappeared. Cooked onions are sublime in a pot roast, I am always up for potatoes, and the meat has that robust beef flavor you can only get by a cheaper, slow-cooked cut. And the gravy, did I mention the gravy?

Okay, so this won’t be as popular a post as the one about Lust. But it’s all about appetites, enjoying our bodies, keeping life in balance, nurturing other growing things; as good as the food was I didn’t make a pig of myself.

I hope your week is this holy.++